Proceedings against Microsoft in a criminal lawsuit over objectionable online content were terminated on Monday by the Delhi High Court, after the company argued that there was neither a complaint nor evidence against it.
Microsoft, Google, and 19 other Internet companies were named in separate civil and criminal suits filed in Delhi courts over alleged objectionable content on their websites.
The plaintiffs in both cases said they wanted to ensure that the companies installed filters to block out or quickly remove objectionable content such as insulting references to religious figures. The Indian government demanded similar action last year when it said it was worried about controversial content on the Web.
Google India has argued that it is only an intermediary for third-party content, and in any case its sites are run by its parent company in the U.S. This is likely to be a line adopted by most other foreign Internet companies included in the lawsuit.
Microsoft said in a statement that it had filed a petition before the Delhi High Court on the grounds that "neither the text of the complaint nor evidence adduced by the complainant made any reference to Microsoft, and that it was contrary to law to summon a party against whom no allegation was made."
The company filed a similar petition successfully in the civil suit. Civil and criminal claims that Yahoo hosted objectionable content were also dropped, after it was found that there was no such content on its websites.
With Microsoft and Yahoo dropped from the case, Google, Facebook and others are left to address the larger issues of whether the intermediary can be held responsible for content posted by a third-party, and if it is possible to filter the large volumes of data posted on Internet social networking, video sharing, and other sites.
Rules framed last year around India's Information Technology Act require intermediaries like ISPs to remove content that is found objectionable within a period of 36 hours of being notified of the content. Intermediaries are also required to warn users against posting or uploading a variety of objectionable content in their user agreements and other rules and regulations.
A lawyer, Shojan Jacob, has however objected to these rules and some other provisions of the country's Information Technology Act in a petition this month before the High Court of Kerala in South India, stating that the intermediaries are private companies who have their own business interests to protect and cannot be expected to be guardians of free speech.
As per Rule 4 of the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011, the owner of the content or the user concerned has no opportunity for understanding the reasons for the censorship of content, Jacob said in his petition. The case comes up for hearing in May.